Michael Pena co-stars as Officer Mike Zavala, playing opposite Jake Gyllenhaal as his partner on the job, Officer Brian Taylor. Here he talks about the intense preparation, filming with multiple cameras, and the pleasant surprise of humor on the job.
AG: Can you start with telling the readers a little bit about your character, Mike Zavala?
MP: I play this guy, Mike Zavala, this Latinoamericano who is a police officer, and he’s got this partner by the name of Brian Taylor, who Jake Gyllenhaal plays. These guys pretty much are good cops. They’re cops that don’t mind getting their hands dirty. We know the real guys this movie is based off of, and they just love getting big busts. It’s a thing that they really love to do. They get in a little bit of trouble, and that’s where some of the action comes from. Sometimes it’s just catching the bad guy, and that’s the way that starts. It’s really also about the brotherhood. These guys become “brothers from other mothers,” I guess you could say. It’s a really well-written script. It’s by the guy that wrote Training Day, SWAT, and The Fast and the Furious. Training Day, especially, has a lot of really great dialogue and really cool conversations, and that’s in this movie as well.
AG: David Ayer made it a point to say that this is not a “typical cop movie.” What would you say that means?
MP: Well, it’s not your typical cop movie, because in a cop movie, the dialogue is really plot-driven. You know, like, “We gotta go here for this, and then there for this,” so it tells the audience how to think and who’s the bad guy. A lot of times they’ll talk up the adversary so when you see them it’s like, “Wow, this guy’s got a lot of history.” In this one, it’s really a slice of life. We talk a lot about family, and we joke around. There’s quite a bit of humor in it. It goes into something that’s touching or something that’s humorous and then right into the action. We get calls all the time. That’s where it’s different. It’s really about two brothers, and then all of the stuff actually justifies the action sequences.
AG: So how did you prepare for that “brotherhood” with Jake Gyllenhaal?
MP: It was a five-month rehearsal period, when usually you only spend about six weeks. That’s what we did. That worked in a number of different ways. Instead of thinking in terms of, “What am I going to do? What do I have to do?” and having a technical advisor really help you out, it was really easy. We already had that stuff down so that we could really focus on the relationship and looking out for each other. These guys make a pact, you know, that if anything happens to them, they’re going to take care of each other’s families. That’s a huge responsibility. They’re also willing to do anything so that their partner goes home safe at night.
AG: During that five-month training, what did you learn that ended up being the most important thing that you used or did in the film?
MP: Really it’s the way that they spoke with each other, which I thought was really interesting. It was really awesome. You don’t think of cops as being funny people. I mean, I don’t. But these guys were written, and me and Jake played it up as much as we could, as humorous. Jake’s a really funny dude, and I had just gotten off doing a couple comedies, so I was like, “Dude, there’s nothing wrong with making talk funny.” You know what I mean? That’s what we did. Sometimes it has to be what it has to be, but other times, I’ve gotten on the screen and they’re laughing at your jokes.
AG: I understand this movie is kind of documentary-style, where cameras are woven into the story. What was it like filming with multiple cameras like that?
MP: It made it easier actually. We could just do take upon take upon take upon take, and you weren’t worried about continuity. You could always make it fresh. Especially with this kind of movie, you need to make it almost improvisational so you don’t really have to cut. Especially being a documentary-style movie, you want to be as natural as possible so the audience can be inside the car with you, like they’re on a ride-along. You want to make it as visceral and accessible as possible.
AG: What view of the cops did you have as a kid, and did that have any effect on the way you carried out your role in this movie?
MP: Yeah, for sure. Now, it’s like, on a plane ride for instance, I used to be like, “Oh, whatever happens happens,” but now I’m like, “Oh god, I don’t want anything to go wrong.” I want to see my kid grow up. I want to see him graduate high school, get married, and all that other stuff. That’s really, really important to me, and being safe put a different perspective on it than if I didn’t have a kid. It gives you more of a reason to care about the different neighborhoods you’re in.
Pena (L) with his on-screen wife (Natalie Martinez on R) and child.
AG: This film isn’t just about being a cop on the job, but also about going home to your wife and kid, so how did those feelings carry into filming those parts?
MP: The thing is, police officers need a time of decompression. That’s when the shift is over, when you’re ready to go. Say you see something horrific that day, which me and Jake actually did. It’s not the easiest thing to come home and fall asleep. Sometimes it takes a couple of hours, and you’re like, “What’s wrong with this world?” It’s not the easiest thing. I realized that that’s what police officers have to do, so it takes a special kind of woman to marry somebody like that.
AG: So what was it like working with Natalie Martinez being that woman for you?
MP: Loved it. I loved it. I would love to work with her again. The thing is that she spent a lot of time with me and wanted to get it right. I’m happy with the way it turned out. For somebody who plays the bad guy, you have to have just a little bit of shady-ness and thinking that there’s something wrong with them. When someone plays your wife, you want to have even just a little bit of love. It goes a long way. She was really easy to work with, and I recommend her to others.
AG: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I’m really looking forward to watching this movie!
MP: Right on. I can’t wait for you to see it either.